As the rebooted series enjoys international success, now is the time for a big-budget Doctor Who game
Doctor Who regenerates. When I say that, I’m not just talking about the in-universe concept of the main character’s cells growing back to cheat death, the canon rationale for a cast change. I’m talking about the series as a whole: it transforms, changes. It’s about to be something very different and very new, with a touch of the familiar all the same.
It’s not that uncommon with Doctor Who. More so than with its longtime American rival Star Trek, the “blue box show” can be divided quite neatly into eras based on the creative teams in charge and the actors portraying the Doctor. Still, it’s a bigger change than most – partly because it marks the return of legendary TV writer Russell T Davies to the top job as showrunner, but also and more importantly because he sees the series welcomed by American money and influence.
Davies’ return is significant because he was the man who revived the show in 2005 after more than a decade away, continuing to deliver one of the show’s biggest hits. He’s also a savvy writer, deftly weaving biting real-world commentary into family-friendly sci-fi adventures. But the money, naturally, is even more important – and this time Doctor Who has Disney’s backing.
Famous for its wonky sets and dodgy CGI, the concept is quite simple: the BBC retains overall creative control and will air the show in the UK, but it will get a cash injection and stream worldwide via Disney+. . Disney’s influence offers a huge cash injection, with UK broadcast industry magazines reporting it will be effective triple the show’s budget, turning it into a £100million series.
This is all a big deal for Doctor Who on TV, but I also think it opens up an interesting conversation in games. It’s for a simple reason: mechanically and tonally, the world of Doctor Who is fertile ground for video games – and it’s barely been explored.
There have been games since the 2005 reboot, of course, and there are old games from the 80s too. the show – mainly in the UK. A game, for Wii, was big enough to justify paying the actors for voice work and for releasing a Wii Remote in the form of the Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver tool, but at the same time not big enough to release anywhere else than in the UK and Australia.
The most recent major swing was The Edge of Time, a VR game that also got an early and early non-VR port as The Edge of Reality. This version had some interesting ideas and great vocal performances from two different TV doctors – but again felt quite consistently held back by the fact that it had big ambitions and probably a pretty slim budget. It also didn’t help its release alongside an era of the series that had near-catastrophic levels of popularity. But with this new deal, that could all change.
The reason I think Doctor Who is great for video games isn’t just because I’m a fan of the show, for my sins – it’s because of the way the show is structured. Its ability to go anywhere and do anything across genres is a perfect place for a creative development team to flex its imaginative muscles. The Doctor’s nature as a hero is also different from most – ready to blow stuff up once in a while, but also focused on intellect and non-violence – but in a rambling way, rather than a sort of Starfleet buzz and conference. The character is painfully British in style and execution – which still sets them apart in the genre.
Although he’s so unique and so important, the great thing is that the Doctor doesn’t have to be the leader! That’s what The Edge of Time got right – understanding that the audience’s lofty dream in Doctor Who isn’t necessarily to be the Doctor, it’s to be with the Doctor. It’s different from Star Trek, where people want to be the captain, not a red shirt. In Doctor Who, companion characters are always the audience’s entry point – and that provides space for a perfect player insert character for any video game. It also decouples the game’s protagonist from any weird canonical red lines that the Doctor wouldn’t cross, in terms of the actions available to the player. It has been explored, but always with a limited budget, a high degree of stupidity and very little success.
There are many ways I could see this manifesting. A Telltale-style adventure game would be a perfect fit for the series. So would an action-adventure game filled with puzzles and bizarre combat. Perhaps most interesting would be a game that uses the TARDIS’s ability to travel anywhere to provide a genre-hopping experience that transforms mechanically and maybe even visually as you travel to different locations and face different threat. That’s really my point: the budget was never really there to fully utilize and exploit this property. I apologize for continuing to insist on the comparison, but Doctor Who is much more fertile ground for video game concepts than Star Trek, which really only functions as a pick-and-choose adventure or Bridge Crew. Like on TV, the show’s greatest strength is its sheer, unstoppable breadth.
Hopefully this Disney+ deal can unlock all of that. If the show’s new creative team gets its way, and Disney’s money is well spent, Doctor Who could quickly become one of the biggest family shows on TV – if not one of the biggest shows overall. . If this happens, a video game is practically necessary. It’s probably when, not if, now. I just hope he can live up to his potential.